“Home of the Purple Martin – Chicago’s Only Bar with Grape Soda on the Gun”
The renovation and re-opening of the California Clipper, which occurred around the New Millennium, helped put Humboldt Park back on the map as far as Chicago nightlife goes. Combined with nearby Black Beetle and the Boulevard Cafe, which opened in Logan Square, the California Clipper gave avid North Side bar-goers a reason to venture into a neighborhood that used to only feature gangs, drugs and crime. Nowadays, Humboldt Park is changing for the better, just as its eastern neighbor Wicker Park did throughout the 1990s. While the Boulevard Cafe is gone, the California Clipper is going strong with its 40s era decor, classic menu of cocktails, rockabilly and blues bands shown just about nightly and, of all things, bingo on Monday nights. While some used to complain about a certain bohemian-poseur-snobbery, from the clientele as well as the staff, both the management and ownership has changed and the California Clipper has never been better. They even have their very own ghost. What more can you ask for?
Said tavern can be found in the base of the red-brick Clipper Building, across the street where neighborhood denizens mourn the closing of the Humboldt Pie Cafe, and steps from the corner of Augusta and California, two blocks south of Division. The structure once housed a movie theater from 1912 until it was closed down in 1918, following the killer flu epidemic at the end of World War I, when it was feared that such a large public space may put patrons at risk. It has been forgotten what inhabited the space in the next two decades, but the space was then reopened sometime after Prohibition as the “Clipper Tavern” and ran, family owned, until the place was sold, renovated and reopened in 1999 as the California Clipper.
The Clipper’s original red-painted, ramshackle wooden facade once fit right in along a street here in Humboldt Park filled with ramshackle facades, but has since been renovated with large glass windows overlooking California Avenue. Step though the plate-glass door and you’ll be transported back to another time where patrons at the bar are more concerned with the music playing and their next cocktail order. The interior of the Clipper consists of a long, spacious main barroom with a red & black linoleum-tiled floor, red-painted walls and a black cement ceiling where exposed red lightbulbs surrounding a circular vent. A dozen red leather booths line the southern wall, along with a coat rack at end by a stack of Readers. Seating here is ideal as a waitress will take care of your cocktails, listed on the hand-written menu, and you’ll have a good sightline to the band. In-between sets, you can gaze at the faded, vintage vacation posters of mountains and beaches, framed on the wall and illuminated in recessed red neon lighting behind what looks like ornate brass but is really made from gutters. Frank Zych, who passed away recently, lived on the second floor and constructed these sconces for the bar out of gutter material that he cut, drilled and painted them himself. Hungry? Eat before you get to the Clipper, as you’ll not find any food unless someone smuggled in a bag of Cheetos.
Upon my first visit to the Clipper, all the booths were taken so a friend and I sat upon a three-piece sofa with 40s style cushioned patterns and a bamboo frame that was located on a little platform just inside the door on the left, but this has since been removed most probably because patrons felt a little strange when those leaving would inevitably stare at you quizzically. Additional table seating can be had at several low-slung, white Formica tables between the booths and a long wooden Brunswick bar that dates back to the 1940s and runs almost the entire length of the northern wall. Behind the bar, you’ll find an old, battered wooden bar-back with mirror, red beveled glass, a blue neon clock at the west end, a naked lady lamp, and shelves loaded with booze to support the vending of an intriguing array of classic cocktails: Champagne Cocktail, Purple Martin, California Egg Cream, Tom Collins, Grasshopper, Martini, Rusty Nail, Brandy Alexander, Mai Tai, Rob Roy (perfect), Manhattan, Singapore Sling. Beer the likes of Bass, PBR, Harp, Chimay and Anchor Steam are also available.
Beyond the bar is an elevated stage of good size, located in the northwest corner of the bar. Mostly local bands are featured at the Clip, like the Deep Chicago Rhythm Owls, Susie Gomez and her Multiple Cats, Rockin’ Billy and the Wild Coyotes, and the oddly named Can.Ky.Ree, all of which play a mix of country swing, jumpin’ blues, bluegrass, organ jazz, and rockabilly, similar to what you’ll find at the Hideout, Abbey Pub or Schuba’s. I’ve seen a few bands at the Clipper and it always turned out to be a good show. Bands play primarily on Fridays and Saturdays, and there’s never a cover. Bartenders take over on other days – you’ll not find a digital juke at the Clip. You will, however, occasionally hear the spoken word (monthly), hosted by the Guild Complex. It’s not weekly like on Sunday nights at the Green Mill or Monday nights at Weeds Tavern, but good things come to those who wait.
Across from the stage is the California Clipper’s private party room, appealingly known as the “Lush Paradise Room,” but which is maddeningly cordoned off usually. There you’ll find a tiki motif, with its green painted walls and bamboo lounge chairs. Given the demise of Rock-a-Tiki, Trader Vic’s and Ciral’s House of Tiki, I’ve longed to get in there to have a Mai Tai but have yet to have the pleasure… This area also features an archway, uncovered upon recent renovations that may have served as the entrance to a speakeasy. This has not been confirmed, but Baby Face Nelson born was born in 1908 and raised one block south of the California Clipper at 942-44 N. California Avenue, according to the now-defunct Unusual Chicago website. Anyway, once you feel that tickle down below, you can find the bathrooms at the west end of the room, through old wooden doors. In recognition of its furnishings and style, the California Clipper was awarded Best Decor by The Official Chicago Bar Guide (2001).
The California Clipper even has its own ghost story, joining the likes of the Red Lion Pub, Gold Star and Ole St. Andrews, and one that would make Ursula Bielski proud. According to the Clipper management and the stories they’ve collected, a woman in white likes to appear, “in booths one and nine, in the ladies restroom, and on the stairs to the apartments over the bar.” While the bar was being renovated, a psychic was brought in and identified the woman as the one depicted on the California Clipper’s history page. Those at the Clipper go on to say, “Although the current management has not had any face-to-face brushes with the Clipper ghost, there has been, on more than one occasion, a distinctive perfume cloud in front of the bar and restroom in the wee hours of the morning, long after closing.”
Perhaps even more unsettling is that bingo has renewed popularity at the California Clipper, each and every Monday night. Beginning at 9:30pm (-ish), and “stars” Steve Spataro and political commentator and Reckless Records employee, “the Steves” Sowley. There’s no charge involved for the “good, clean fun” had by all, particularly those who win and walk away the proud recipients of a “bag of crap,” courtesy of Uncle Fun. Newcity Chicago describes the goings-on in this way: “The California Clipper’s Monday night bingo series takes the game out of the church hall and puts it exactly where it should be—surrounded with hipsters and booze. Two or three callers sit on the Clipper’s stage and read off the card numbers; the banter ranges from terse self-deprecating comedy to drunken-stooge rambling.”
The original California Clipper Boeing B314
So, who is it that descends upon the California Clipper, here in this darkened corner of Chicago for cocktails and rockabilly? In his review on Centerstage Chicago, Pete Beatty explains the attire: “Hipster play clothes. Odd wool garments, taffeta skirts, inadvisable sideburns and striped sweaters are the demimonde, but ultimately anything goes, because it’s too dark to make much out of what other people, or you, are wearing.” While regentrification has spread its tendrils throughout the neighborhood, to the delight of condo-dwellers and chagrin of the bohemians and more prevalent wannabes, Humboldt Park is still pretty rough. My mother grew up there on Cortez Street and in the early 70s, we had to move my grandmother out of there when the gangs and crime became unbearable. While these problems slowly subside, you’ll still want to keep an eye out. A friend of mine used to live in the area and when one of his buddies came for a visit, he left only to find a few bullet holes in his car. Also, I once went on a date with a Puerto Rican girl from Humboldt Park and, when I asked her about shootings in the neighborhood, she said, “Oh, it’s not that bad. Well, maybe a little bit now because the gangs are recruiting.” Just pay attention and you’ll be fine. While usually loathe to do so, I recommend that someone in your Rat Pack drives because parking is easy, cabs aren’t found in this neck of the woods and I wouldn’t want to wait outside for one to be called. As for the buses and trains, you don’t want to be on them at night in this part of town. Give it a few years.
“I heard two stories about Toni and Joe running the place. Once they were playing bingo for money and the vice squad came in. Joe pulled a gun on them. Another story was told to me by a customer. He said his dad used to come in years ago and would buy a bucket of beer. He got the bucket home and sat down to have some beer and it was completely flat. The next day he went back to complain to Toni and she refused to give him a refund because she said (something like), ‘Of course it’s flat today, how do I know it was flat last night?'”
“I have one story about when I ran the place – other than the one about me being bitten on the arm by some violently anti-smoking guy, or the first new year’s day party we had when people were encouraged to wear their pj’s, or our first Halloween when the bar ring for the night was $666. One night late in 2001, we had a packed show with the great string band Jim & Jennie and The Pinetops. It was about 1am and I was bartending at the stage end of the bar while another bartender was bartending on the door end. She came up to me yelling something with a panicked look but it was so loud I couldn’t hear. I thought she was saying someone wanted a drink she couldn’t make (didn’t make sense because she was definitely a better bartender than me and she wouldn’t panic over a drink) so I got the Bartender’s Bible out of the drawer and started to ask her what the drink was. She grabbed my arm and yelled in my ear, ‘There’s a guy with a gun by the door!’ Fortunately she and security had already hit their panic buttons and the cops were there quick. More importantly the guy was gone and no one was hurt. Apparently he had come in with some other dude hot on his tail. He turned around, pulled a badge, pointed his gun at the guy who followed him in and said, ‘Don’t fuck with me.’ The second guy backed out the door and ran off. The guy with the gun was moving towards the door and the doorman pushed him out from behind and locked him outside. Shortly after the cops came they found him walking up California near the park. It turned out he was a cop. The watch commander came and told me that he guarantees the guy will never come in again and that it was going to be an internal affairs matter so we might not find out what happened. From his actions and from what a couple people said the guy with the gun was probably high. Luckily there was no real panic and really only the people by the front door actually saw the thing go down. In fact the show continued until 1:20.”– B.P. (June 23, 2007)
Thanks in part to California Clipper, as well as nearby Black Beetle and Whirlaway, Humboldt Park is now officially barfly-friendly (except that you’ll probably want to drive, thanks to the dearth of cabs). And how doesn’t love the California Clipper’s ornamentation from another era, bumpin’ music and easy-going atmosphere? Not bad, particularly cosidering the turbulent time preceding the current ownership by Gino Battaglia, who also owns Blue Chicago. For more information, including a live music schedule, check out the California Clipper website. Is this the new vibe in Humboldt Park? Ukie Village meets Lincoln Square? A funky vibe in old beer halls? Whatever it is, it’s better than a kick in the head.